- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 26, 2001

There is little use rehashing how and why the Bush administration went adrift six months ago in our policy toward North and South Korea.
The main point is that we are back on the right course advocated by Secretary Colin Powell in February before the White House pulled the tiller from his hand. That course basically is to continue the Clinton policy of "constructive engagement" of Pyongyang, working in very close harmony with Seoul and Tokyo while keeping Moscow and Beijing informed of what we are doing and seeking their cooperation where possible.
Mr. Powell got it just right last week in public statements in Hanoi and Seoul that the U.S. position now is:
(1) We are prepared to re-enter discussions with Pyongyang's leadership at a time and place of their choice, with no preconditions, and are now waiting for their response.
(2) We are strongly supportive of South Korea's "Sunshine policy" aimed at Korean reconciliation ; the recent problems we have had with our South Korean ally in maintaining an agreed policy toward North Korea are now "knitted up."
(3) In addition to renewed dialogue with Washington, we urge North Korea's Kim Jong-il to agree to attend a summit in Seoul before the end of the year, and we seek the assistance of Moscow and Beijing in persuading him to do both.
Yes, we are back on course with North Korea. Why is this so important in the scheme of U.S. international security interests? Because, as the most senior officials responsible for our foreign and defense policies in both the Clinton and Bush administrations have stated repeatedly, North Korea is the greatest threat to U.S. security interests anywhere in the world. How can this be? After all, North Korea's economy is a shambles and its people are starving.
The stark reality remains that our allies and U.S. military and civilian personnel (about 84,000 in South Korea and 100,000 in Japan) are hostage to North Korean conventional weapons and weapons of mass destruction delivered by missiles, aircraft, long-range artillery and multiple rocket launchers against which we and our allies lack adequate defenses. Do I mean that "the world's sole superpower," in combination with the strong military capabilities of our Korean and Japanese allies, would lose a war with North Korea — who neither China nor Russia would fight to defend? Of course not, we would utterly devastate North Korea, probably in a month or less of mid-to-high intensity conflict. But it would be a "Pyrrhic victory" given the likely hundreds of thousands of casualties we would sustain.
The outcome of war with North Korea would be even more devastating for the United States were Pyongyang to decide to resume testing of its long-range Taepo-dong missile. According to the Rumsfeld Commission report of 1998, it would be able to hit all 50 American states in about five years, assuming the absence of an effective missile defense system. And we should recall that North Korea exports missiles to other countries that pose threats to us and our friends and allies.
Would Pyongyang deliberately launch an attack against South Korea and Japan and thereby commit suicide? No. Unlike most who continue to refer to the North's leadership as irrational or erratic (and who have never even met with North Korea's leaders), I know through hundreds of hours of high-level meetings with them that there is a sound understanding in Pyongyang of the outcome of war.
So, what's the problem? War by accident or miscalculation at times of high tension, historically the way many wars have started. On the Korean Peninsula, the focus of repeated crises that could have erupted into war over the past 50 years has been along the very heavily fortified, 2-mile wide, 150-mile long Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) and adjacent, disputed territorial waters. Crisis prevention or management requires diplomacy, where communication is fundamental to all else, something that the Bush administration abandoned for six months in the case of North Korea.
Equally important, the hiatus in communication undermined the Sunshine Policy of South Korea, essentially shutting down the head of steam that had gathered in movement toward reconciliation.
Now that we are back on course, we need to make up for lost time in part by taking seriously North Korea's repeated demand for "equality" in U.S.-North Korean discussions. Equality should become part of our diplomatic rhetoric. The Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea is, after all, a sovereign and equal nation under international law, even if unequal to the United States by every other measure. What possible downside, especially in the international community, which is clamoring to normalize relations with North Korea, can there be for "the world's sole superpower" to bestow a measure of dignity on Pyongyang's leadership — if it helps get us moving faster toward achievement of our international security objectives?
Beyond public rhetoric, a very effective move toward our objectives would be for Mr. Powell to request a meeting in Pyongyang with Mr. Kim, whose government rests primarily on the military. One should not say that we have "been there, done that" previously through a previous visit by Madeleine K. Albright. It takes nothing away from our former secretary of state to say she is no Colin Powell in the eyes of the types of military leaders I briefed in Pyongyang about the Persian Gulf war ( and why they would lose a war just as Iraq did). They asked me repeatedly about JCS Chairman Gen. Colin Powell, who was a student at the National War College when I was a professor there. My bottom line for them was that "You don't mess with Gen. Powell."
There is more than enough on President Bush's foreign policy plate right now. But, if his most senior advisers on foreign and defense policy are right about the threat from North Korea, rapid and sustained engagement with Pyongyang should be very high on his agenda. Mr. Powell is the right person to keep us on the right course, and we should give him the tiller.

William J. Taylor, a former director of national security studies at West Point and senior executive with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, is an adjunct professor at the Georgetown University School of Foreign Service.


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